The Changing Face of the Cheap Thriller

I had the joy of reading Bradley Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction. This was an annotated chronology of the type of mass-produced Mack Bolan follow-on novels. Like “progressive rock”, the style of book, which has been called everything from ‘men’s adventure’ to just ‘action-adventure’, is very hard to define. Mengel calls them “serial vigilantes” and leaves out a few edge cases while including some I’d think were oddballs. Literature does not neatly fall into categories.

Still, I could see two clear phases. “Phase 1” was kicked off by War Against The Mafia and the Executioner, spawned countless “The ________” vigilantes, and spanned across the 1970s. “Phase 2” was in the 1980s and, like its technothriller cousin, declined quickly and sharply after the USSR’s fall. There was surprisingly little overlap between the two outside of the big-ticket franchises. Of course (at least before the independent boom), Mengel shows that kind of book reduced to a few sputtering, short-lived series formed after 1991.

But really, the cheap thriller itself, as opposed to that specific kind, was not failing. I know this myself-the Dirk Pitt (Clive Cussler) and Jack Reacher (Lee Child) books I found even as a youth speak to that. These were/are cheap thrillers with premises and action that range from “ridiculous” to “really, really ridiculous”. They were in the bigger supermarkets and they were right in the prominent bookstore shelves, while the surviving mass-produced Gold Eagle novels sat in awkward corners.

Serial Vigilantes itself, though dry, is a very interesting book and I recommend it to anyone interested in such fiction.

When I Judged Books By Their Covers

I’m normally not the biggest cover enthusiast when it comes to books. But the covers at least played a role in delaying my interest in Mack Bolan novels for a while. First the background, where there were these things called “bookstores”, and all of the Executioner/SuperBolan/Stony Man books were still chugging along in print, unlike now where the latter two are cancelled and the first is reduced to a few ebooks a year.

I knew who Mack Bolan was because I knew he was the basis of the Punisher. So that brought a slight bit of name recognition. My impression of the Bolan books I saw on the shelves was… iffy. And it wasn’t because I was sneering at the concept-I was every bit the fan of escapist lowbrow fiction I remain today. I was more into science fiction and the occasional technothriller instead of contemporary action.

So I saw the Gold Eagle Bolans on the shelf, and they just seemed, from the cover, description and title, meh. And keep in mind the comparison books I usually ended up actually buying were things like Starfist books, which had dubious plots and even more dubious covers. But the Starfist/Baen covers were at least dubious and distinct.

The Bolans I saw were somehow both overly garish and overly bland at the same time. Don’t just take my word for it, look at the initial covers for later Executioners and Superbolans. (For what it’s worth, the later Stony Man covers hold up considerably better, but I don’t remember seeing those, probably because I didn’t know the connection at the time).

I never took the plunge-I checked the back blurbs a few times but never actually sampled, much less bought a then-new Bolan. And if I had, it’d probably have stayed a one-and-done novelty. Only much later, after Gold Eagle closed in December 2015 and after I read War Against The Mafia did I take a chance on the Bolans I’d previously passed up.

 

The Fall of Gold Eagle

So, I found a Nader Elhefnawy blog post on the shuttering of Harlequin’s Gold Eagle imprint for “men’s adventure” cheap thrillers in 2015 (although Harlequin has continued to release new Mack Bolan ebooks since then). Besides the increasing diversity in media as a whole, the genre is mentioned in the post as being squeezed both from above (from bigger-market, less assembly line-ish cheap thrillers) and below (from independent/self-published ones).

Now the indies and the big-timers both have structural weaknesses and strengths. As for how the Gold Eagle Bolans (and similar professional assembly line fiction) held up, I’ll have to read them. Even Ahern’s Survivalist doesn’t really match up, as that was a giant serial made by one person, not 27 standalone books made by different ones.